Jun 302009

We were recently directed to Text, Tweet, or Talk: Communication for Today, a newly launched blog written by Michele Davis, an undergraduate student and friend of Cutter. Michele is exploring trends in interpersonal communication and what effects these trends have on society. She’s specifically looking at the impact of the movement away from face-to-face/voice communication towards digital, text-based, online communication.

Michele’s way of communicating wasn’t an option when I was an undergrad, but now, even though I spend a significant portion of my time communicating online for business as well as with my friends and family, the really meaningful conversations in my life are always by phone. By contrast, Michele, who is in the 18-24 age bracket writes,

It is hard to imagine my life without the trifecta having some presence in my daily routine. But the truth is my life has not been characterized by these social networking sites for very long at all: I only joined the Facebook community a mere four years ago. I guess you could say that these sites have poked, nudged and tweeted their way into my life at lightning speed. But I am not the lone casualty in this social networking invasion. I am just one in the masses. There is no avoiding the Kool-Aid: social networking sites are changing the way we communicate with each other and inter-personal communication will never be the same.

As I was reflecting on how social networking sites have changed how I personally communicate with those around me, I realized something astonishing. I could not remember the last time I called one of my friends simply to ask them what they were up to or to see what their plans were for the night. I mean the last time I literally dialed the number and had a conversation.

If you are anything like me and my peers that I observe around me, vocal conversation is dwindling and is being quickly replaced with text messages, Facebook wall posts and iChat conversations. It seems that no longer does anyone have the desire to pick up the phone and call someone. We would rather spend 5 minutes typing up a conversation that could have been completed in a 30 second phone call. Is this because our cellular phone minutes are so few and oh-so-precious that we do not want to risk going over our minutes? I would bet no. I myself hardly pick up the phone just to have a good “chat” with someone (other than my mother, of course).

Texting can be really efficient and effective (it’s the best way I’ve come across to get a babysitter). However, as I read Michele’s Trifecta post, I couldn’t help but think about a recent phone call I had with my best friend: She told me about her dog’s tragic accident; we shared stories about our kids and husbands, our golf and tennis games, our clothing and closet woes, and we laughed until tears were streaming down our cheeks. None of this we had communicated in the half-dozen emails we had traded in the previous couple of weeks. I’m not ready to give up my phone. What about you?


  6 Responses to “Text, Tweet or Talk? How Do You Communicate?”

  1. avatar

    For me, the most telling line is when Michele says that she will spend 5 minutes typing a response that would take a 30 second phone call. Cognitive science and the recent discoveries in the way the brain is wired to support behavior probably illuminates what is truly going on. “Neurons that fire together – Wire together” (Daniel Amen M.D.) In other words, behavior that has emotional content, if repeated, re-wires the brain, especially if there is gratification (feedback). We talk about this “social media” phenomenon as though it was an intellectual choice or preference, when in fact, it is more likely an addictive behavior that has changed the structure of the brain for the participants. The implications are enormous. The obvious is a loss of ability to speak effectively as a communication form and perhaps, truly connect with a live person. Like the effect of the 20 second blasts on Sesame Street for toddler development, the
    brain is being conditioned for very short bursts of attention (and reading). So, novels, books, newspapers, etc are uncomfortable and are not easily consumed by the brain architected to support tweets. Deeply personal interaction also becomes unnatural.

    I don’t like what is happening here. You may call me a Luddite but we need smart people who have a systems thinking approach to understanding the complexities of life and the challenges faced by society. We used to decry the TV inspired mentality that condensed significant life vignettes into 30 minute sit-coms or 60 minute dramas where the problems were resolved with a joke or a gun blast and end of story. It gave a unrealistic expectation that complex human interactions/conflicts would give way to simple and often violent actions. Today, we are truly creating a generation that looks at the complex cosmic map through a very narrow digital straw. The ability to hold a view of the vast
    actions/interactions and 2nd and 3rd order effects of policies, positions and actions is being lost.

    I also fear that the ability for these people to develop true intimacy with other human beings is being compromised. Someone I know well, sits in his home office, one wall away from his son and they email and IM, rather than talking. They literally go days without a face to face conversation — even eating separately in front of their computers. Both are addicted to IM, chat rooms (and cyber-sex). The father cannot be away from his computer, cell phone and BB. He could not have a meal in a restaurant with his wife without a half dozen digital interruptions — no surprise that the wife divorced him! We are creating a generation whose behavior is eerily like those on the Autistic spectrum. So — a
    future full of people who are largely ADD, with Asperger’s personalities is a real possibility.

    Michele’s cohorts are a foreshadow of things to come. They may be just a little uncomfortable with intimacy, face to face communications and problems which require long periods of attention but their children and the children who are Facebooking and tweeting in grade school may never develop the capacity for real bonding to real humans. If the future belongs to people more bonded to avatars representing people, than they are bonded to people, humans may have even less empathy for the plight of humanity than they have today. Makes me shudder.

  2. OK, this is becoming a Isaac Asimov moment. In a couple of his novels, Asimov talks about two planets with different cultures. In “The Caves of Steel” the culture was made up exclusively of dense, domed cities where the people were so used to their environment that in the rare cases where they ventured outside their confines, they had intense agoraphobia. The contrasting planet (“The Naked Sun”) was one where people had become so technologically advanced that they lived completely
    alone (except for the conception — just passing sperm hadn’t been thought of then). In this second world, Robots provide help and advanced telecommunications to satisfy the need to communicate. If Lynne is right — and, hey, it’s possible – maybe we’re on our way to approach B here. Approach B was, at least in the novel, a much more environmentally friendly place — Earth but with lots fewer people.

    Unlike the Luddites among us, I have complete faith in the ability of human beings to grow tired of whichever technology the generation just before them embraced. My bet is that a “better/different Twitter” is already being used by pre-teens and we just don’t know it.

  3. avatar

    I understand Lynne’s concern, and I have shared it on occasion. But I can also imagine how every new communication media was faced with the same skepticism in its infancy, while a new generation embraced it. The pace of technology introduction gets faster, but the constant replacement of something new by something newer is… not new.

    We know that most phone conversations end up in a voicemail system. If, on the other hand, you are trying to convey a short piece of information (“going to the bar for the trivia game tonight, but will be late”) between two things, we may be concerned that if we used the phone and the other person answered, we might not be able to control the length of the interchange. And we (or the other person) might be in a noisy place, where they can text but not talk.

    No wonder that students have developed this new culture: texting can be done while walking the hallway from one class to another… and sure, it is often done during class. Yes, it is bad in terms of what it does to the student’s attention to the material or to the person walking next to them in the hallway — and yes, it is good in terms of the effectiveness of the communication (“mom, feeling better already, thanks for asking”).

    Twitter is different — it is a form of broadcasting to a community in a way that email, text messages, and the phone did not allow. It’s like having an open conference call line all day, and commenting aloud on what you’re doing or thinking to whomever is willing to listen. Yes, it is the ultimate ego trip — and yes, it allows people to stay informed, organize demonstrations, or just feel more connected to someone else’s life or work.

    The only thing that really surprises me is how this is starting to effectively compartmentalize the use of email. This is probably good: I’d rather trade a few text messages within minutes to agree what day is good for lunch than emailing back and forth over a period of hours or days. So perhaps we’ll end up with fewer emails, but they will contain more meaningful information: trip reports, well-researched opinions, etc. Of course, email is also the main way we share documents today, which is rather insane, and is due in part to the normal resistance to change, and in part to the ease-of-use of email vs. the maddening obscurity of most collaboration suites (Sharepoint headaches, anyone?)

    We have postal mail (yes, it still exists), the telephone, faxes, email, text messages, tweets, and more things will come. Each medium has a role. We’re still all adjusting to the changes and making up our evolving collective culture as we go. It’s never helped to just regret it, it’s better to help lead in the judicious use of this ever-expanding toolbox.

  4. avatar


    I agree with Ken, though I suspect it’s three worlds. The third is those that don’t have access to the tools and technologies — and so they don’t participate but not necessarily willingly.

    But .. I do think there’s a split in the second world (those that do regularly use these things.) People like Anne absolutely use them for professional and personal effectiveness. But there’s also people that use it for strictly personal purposes – almost an addiction. And certainly a vibrant social environment. My point: while Anne et al get more done, I just don’t understand how those semi-addicted to it get anything done. (I see this with the students I teach.) And I think this is a looming problem.

  5. People who eat in front of separate computers would have had their silent meals with newspapers and magazines 20 years ago. I don’t think the technology causes the isolation, but perhaps by creating more immersive environments it may worsen what’s already there for some. And anyone who’s ever hidden reading for pleasure inside a textbook knows that classrooms have never been able to fully capture the attention of every student.

    I have the reverse experience as Michele, I spend 30 seconds typing what used to take 5 minutes to accomplish because of the various conversational pleasantries that we all observe. I find, like Anne reports, that each new generation of communications tools enriches my experience with other people. If I’m talking to you on the phone, it’s because I *want* to talk to you.

  6. Sue Shellenbarger gives her interesting perspective on this topic in the Wall Street Journal’s blogs Digits and the Juggle. http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/09/03/for-teens-has-texting-replaced-talking/

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